Sunday, July 05, 2009

Public Enemies

Less Heat, more Warmth

Public Enemies was never meant to be a film. It was originally set to be made at HBO as a mini-series, and if my viewing of it told me nothing else, it's that television would have been a much more natural fit for the story of John Dillinger's last year, the woman he loved and the man who tried to catch him. It is very episodic in nature, with no real throughline to connect them other than, obviously, Dillinger himself. There is just so much that could be done with this story that, even at two hour, twenty minutes, the film winds up feeling truncated.

To his credit, Michael Mann does try to cover a lot of ground in what time he has; we get a glimpse into the birthing pains of the FBI, the megalomania of J. Edgar Hoover (played with relish by Billy Crudup, sporting the broadest of 1930s announcer voices) and the creation of a surveillance society. These fascinating ideas, though, are ultimately only mentioned in passing and are never explored. Similarly, there is no sense of the economic turmoil that America was going through at the time, and therefore little context for why Dillinger would be considered such a folk hero. And it would have been perfectly possible to convey this without interrupting the story or disrupting the drama; Bonnie and Clyde did it in 1967.

The greatest victim of the film's attempts to encompass so much in too disparate a manner is the character of Melvin Purvis, played ably by Christian Bale. I say 'ably' and this should not be considered a slight against Bale; he's not fantastic because the part he has been given is not fantastic. Purvis could be an obsessive trying to get his man, or a conflicted good 'ol boy struggling to contend with his more violent colleagues, but there is so little scope for his development in the film that he winds up being a two-dimensional good cop.

Contrasted with Purvis is Dillinger, who is given ample room to play around in. In his depiction of Dillinger, Johnny Depp, as well as Michael Mann and his co-writers, Ann Biderman and Ronan Bennett, do something very interesting. Instead of romanticising and mythologising Dillinger, the film-makers choose to portray him as a cold, efficient and ultimately bad man. Sure, he's charming and has a certain amount of wit to him, but the film suggests that this was all for the cameras and the public, that Dillinger was putting on an act in order to curry public favour. It's there in his assertion that he cares what the public thinks of him, in his declarations that he's ''here for the bank's money'', not that of its customers (even though it's all the same money) and in his decision to visit the office of the very people trying to catch him.

Even the look of the film serves to underline this un-romantic view of Dillinger. Rather than shoot the film in a nostalgic way, Mann shoots the film in an incredibly modern style, using digital cameras and an almost entirely hand-held technique, making for a nice contrast between the period trappings and the urgency of this technique. The film has a verite feel to it, one which is exemplified by its fast and loose action sequences. I was particularly impressed by the way in which bullets were used in the film. The lack of music in most of the shoot outs made each of the impacts sound especially loud and the sound design for each impact made them feel much more powerful and intimate than in most films. In your average film, bullets ping; in Public Enemies, they bang, producing a much more visceral experience.

The only flaw in this aesthetic is the way in which the film portrays Dillinger's relationship with Billie Frechette (the luminous Marion Cotillard). Their relationship is overly sentimental and is at odds with the tone of the rest of the film, which is resolutely hard-edged in its notions of Dillinger and what he represented. I'm not saying that this element of the film is sub-par, it does make for a nice change from the bank heists, shoot outs and prison escapes that make up much of the film, just that it was an element that stood out from the rest of the film.

Public Enemies is an impressive feat in terms of what you can do with digital film-making and as an example of what can be done with period films to make them feel fresh and relevant, but it's too compressed in its ideas and this causes the whole to suffer. Add four hours, divide it into six parts and it could have been something really special. As it is, it's an above average gangster film, but with the pedigree of those involved it should have been so much more.